Friday 29 October 2021

Time for review stars to go?

Stars - they're great shorthand when you're looking for a business, no? Would you like a simple answer? Here it is: YES. For businesses. 

But - and this is a big BUT, we're afraid our experience over the last ten or so years means we are going to have to dig a bit deeper in order to come to a helpful conclusion for consumers.

Why stars in the first place?

A 'five-star' experience - a 'five-star' dinner - a 'five-star' hotel - where did they originate? Well, the first recorded rating system - using exclamation marks - was invented by Englishwoman Mariana Starke for her travel guides in the 1820s, but stars? Probably Baedeker in around 1850 and then Michelin in 1926. We had to wait until the 1960s and Craig Claiborne in the NY Times for stars to be applied to a restaurant review. Interestingly, while stars - and even tomatoes, rotten and otherwise - have been routinely applied to films, theatre producers have mostly resisted using stars on publicity material, sticking with quotes.

But one of the best drivers of a star system we have found quoted in the media is the move by the Scotsman using stars for shows on the Edinburgh Fringe, when it had grown to more than 1500 shows. The Scotsman introduced stars as a convenient short-cut for readers. And herein lies a clue as to our growing disquiet about stars when applied to high-value service businesses. Fine - maybe - for a night out, but as a way of choosing a medical practitioner or a financial adviser?

The numbers game

One of the main issues arises when we see businesses playing the numbers game to keep their star rating up: got a lot of negative reviews? Just get more positives, almost any way you can.

Engagement v. non-engagement (what we call 'review denial')

Savvy businesses have learnt that they can up their ratings simply by engaging with their customers. Look at this quote about Trustpilot:

Paid for or free?

Why would a business pay for a reviews site when Google reviews are free - not just free, but more visible and more credible (after all, it is far harder to create a fake account on Google than it is on a review site to write a review)?

There are only two credible answers to this (aside from the business falling for a sales pitch by the review site):

  • the review site is being used by the business to gate reviews to Google ('gating' means pre-qualifying customers so the business is as sure as it possibly can be that is only inviting those most likely to write a positive review to do so; so it may invite all its customers to post to say Trustpilot and then only invite those who rate them 5 stars to go on the post their review to Google. It can also be done by using the tried-and-tested 'customer survey' route.)

Thanks Yell and Trustpilot - and thanks to Richman SEO: read their full piece here

  • the review site offers the business 'advantages' that Google does not. Trustpilot, for instance, allows businesses to challenge reviews and then insists the reviewer provide 'proof of purchase' for instance, otherwise their review is taken down. While a great idea on the surface, this has the real-world effect of making sure the absolute minimum of negative reviews are published.

Yell 'flags' 109 reviews in the last 12 months - 101 of which are negative - and only 27 of those remain on the site.

  • other review sites may allow businesses to cherry-pick those they invite to write reviews. Feefo, for instance, is an 'invitation only' review site. And what business is going to wilfully invite known unhappy customers to post a review? Such a solution may be fine for online retail, but for life-and-death (medical) or financially crucial (investment managers, estate agents) services?

All of the above only serves to undermine consumer confidence in reviews in general. And a near five-star rating on any of these sites should be viewed with a high degree of scepticism. Indeed, the day is fast approaching when consumers should assume the worst when faced with a business that employs a review site rather than simply inviting its customer to post to Google.

Out-of-date reviews

Must be archived - at least as regards the business's score. Why? Because businesses evolve, and not always in a good way. Take an obvious example: online retail. The business has established a reputation for quality and its backers think it's about time they made some serious money. What do they do? They change from a high-quality supplier to a sweat-shop. Same shirt, inferior fabric, inferior machining. And thousands of out-of-date five-star reviews keeping the sales coming in. Another: takeovers. Business A buys business B and replaces all their great staff. But keeps all their great five-star reviews. We have a file full of such examples.

The solution?

The problem, you will see, is not with the review score - be it five, four, three, two or one stars, it's with the market and its regulation and the enforcement of those regulations.

For consumers

Slow down. Don't just go by the score. By all means use it as a basic guide but then read the reviews. And the business's responses to those reviews.

For the regulators

Insist that the rules are followed. Cherry-picking and gating are both illegal, at least in the UK, but they're currently at epidemic levels. So enforce the rules. Fine those that breach them - businesses and review sites. Publish your action.

For Google 

Archive all reviews over a certain age. Two years? Since a major business reorganisation? Reward businesses that respond to reviews. 

For the review sites

Guys, you're running canals. The railway has arrived. Find something else to do. It's Google all the way now. At least until you find some value that you can add over and above Google reviews that doesn't involve 'helping' businesses to look better than they really are.

For businesses

Stop buying the latest flavour of the month. Stop giving away your incredibly valuable customer data. Find a reliable review manager. One that incorporates professional moderation into its basic offering and focusses on reviews to your own website - reviews that you own - and to Google. 

A case history

Here's a local search...and the first two results: 

You will notice that one business has a star rating, a score (4.8) and the number of reviews that have been counted towards that rating (240) just under its listing. They're taken, by Google, direct from the business's own reviews on its own website. 

But the important thing here, in the context of this article, is that every single person who ever has had any contact with the first business can simply visit its website and write a review... clicking the 'Write a review' link above. Once that review has been moderated to ensure, as far as is possible, that it contains no errors of fact or statements likely to mislead the reader (who may be relying on it to choose an important and costly service) it will be published on the business's website.

240 reviews, which the reader can filter at will...

The reviewer will then receive an automatic request to copy their review to Google. Every reviewer. Whatever the content of their review or star rating...

So there is a system that works equally well for the business and their prospective customer. That is virtually impossible to game. That gives consumers a reliable resource to rely on when choosing high-value services.

So the answer to the question we pose at the top of this article 'Time for review stars to go?'

No, but time for businesses, review sites, Google and the regulators to act to ensure that, as far as reasonably possible, consumers - especially consumers of high-value services - can rely on those stars.

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